The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 14
A WOMAN'S WAY
HOWEVER serious the talk of the night before—and Herbert’s pathetic story of the poor mould-maker was still in our memory when we awoke—the effect was completely dispelled as soon as we began to breathe the air of the out of doors.
The weather helped—another of those caressing Indian-summer days—the sleepy sun with half-closed eyes dozing at you through its lace curtains of mist; every fire out and all the windows wide open.
Leà helped. Never were her sabots so active nor so musical in their scuffle: now hot milk, now fresh coffee, now another crescent—all on the run, and all with a spontaneous, uncontrollable laugh between each serving—all the more unaccountable as of late the dear old woman’s face, except at brief intervals, had been as long as an undertaker’s.
And Mignon helped!
Helped? Why, she was the whole programme—with another clear, ringing, happy song that came straight from her heart; her head thrown back, her face to the sun as if she would drink in all its warmth and cheer, the coffee-roaster keeping time to the melody.
And it was not many minutes before each private box and orchestra chair in and about the court-yard, as well as the top galleries, were filled with spectators ready for the rise of the curtain. Herbert leaned out over his bedroom sill, one story up; Brierley from the balcony, towel in hand, craned his head in attention; Louis left his seat in the kiosk, where he was at work on a morning sketch of the court, and I abandoned my chair at one of the tables: all listened and all watched for what was going to happen. For happen something certainly must, with our pretty Mignon singing more merrily than ever.
I, being nearest to the footlights, beckoned to old Leà carrying the coffee, and pointed inquiringly to the blissful girl.
“What’s the meaning of all this, Leà?—what has happened? Your Mignon seemed joyous enough the other morning when she came from market, but now she is beside herself.”
The old woman lowered her voice, and, with a shake of her white cap, answered:
“Don’t ask me any questions; I am too happy to tell you any lies and I won’t tell you the truth. Ah!—see how cold monsieur’s milk is—let me run to Pierre for another”—and she was off; her flying sabots, like the upturned feet of a duck chased to cover, kicking away behind her short skirts.
Lemois, too, had heard the song and, picking up Coco, strolled toward me his fingers caressing the bird, his uneasy glance directed toward the happy girl as he walked, wondering, like the rest of us, at the change in her manner. To watch them together as I have done these many times, the old man smoothing its plumage and Coco rubbing his black beak tenderly against his master’s cheek, is to get a deeper insight into our landlord’s character and the subtle sympathy which binds the two.
The bird once settled comfortably on his wrist, Lemois looked my way.
“You should get him a mate, monsieur,” I called to him in answer to his glance, throwing this out as a general drag-net.
The old man shifted the bird to his shoulder, stopped, and looked down at me.
“He is better without one. Half the trouble in the world comes from wanting mates; the other half comes from not knowing that this is true. My good Coco is not so stupid”—and he reached up and stroked the bird’s crest and neck. “All day long he ponders over what is going on down below him. And just think, monsieur, what does go on down below him in the season! The wrong man and the wrong woman most of the time, and the pressure of the small foot under the table, and the little note slipped under the napkin. Ah!—they don’t humbug Coco! He laughs all day to himself—and I laugh too. There is nothing, if you think about it, so comical as life. It is really a Punch-and-Judy show, with one doll whacking away at the other—‘Now, will you be good!—Now, will you be good!’—and they are never good. No—no—never a mate for my Coco—never a mate for anybody if I can help it.”
“Would you have given the same advice thirty years ago to madame la marquise?” Madame was the one and only subject Lemois ever seemed to approach with any degree of hesitancy. My objective point was, of course, Mignon; but I had opened madame’s gate, hoping for a short cut.
“Ah!—madame is quite different,” he replied with sudden gravity. “All the rules are broken in the case of a woman of fashion and of rank and of very great wealth. These people do not live for themselves—they are part of the State. But I will tell you one thing, Monsieur High-Muck, though you may not believe it, and that is that Madame la Marquise de la Caux was never so contented as she is at the present moment. She is free now to do as she pleases. Did you hear what Monsieur Le Blanc said last night about the way the work is being pressed? The old marquis would have been a year deciding on a plan; madame will have that villa on its legs and as good as new in a month. You know, of course, that she is coming down this afternoon?”
I knew nothing of the kind, and told him so.“Yes; she sent me word last night by a mysterious messenger, who left the note and disappeared before I could see him—Leà brought it to me. You see, madame is most anxious about her flowers for next year, and this afternoon I am going with her to a nursery and to a great garden overlooking the market-place to help her pick them out.” Here he caressed his pet again. “No, Monsieur Coco, you will not be allowed down here in the court where your pretty white feathers and your unblemished morals might be tarnished by the dreadful people all about. You shall go up on your perch; it is much better”—and with a deprecatory wave of his hand he strolled up the court-yard, Coco still nibbling his cheek with his horny black beak, the old man crooning a little love song as he walked.
I rose from my chair and began bawling out the good news of madame’s expected visit to the occupants of the several windows, the effect being almost as startling as had been Mignon’s song.
Instantly plans were cried down at me for her entertainment. Of course she must stay to dinner, our last one for the season! This was carried with a whoop. There must be, too, some kind of a special ceremony when the invitation was delivered. We must greet her at the door—all of us drawn up in a row, with Herbert stepping out of the ranks, saluting like a drum-major, and requesting the “distinguished honor”—and the rest of it: that, too, was carried unanimously. Whatever her gardening costume, it would make no difference, and no excuse on this score would receive a moment’s consideration. Madame even in a fisherman’s tarpaulins would be welcome—provided only that she was really inside of them.
With the whirl of her motor into the court-yard at dusk, and the breathing of its last wheeze in front of the Marmouset, the plump little woman sprang from her car muffled to her dimpled chin in a long waterproof, her two brown, squirrel eyes laughing behind her goggles. Instantly the importuning began, everybody crowding about her.
Up went her hands.
“No—please don’t say a word and, whatever you do, don’t invite me to stay to dinner, because I’m not going to; and that is my last word, and nothing will change my mind. Oh!—it is too banal—and you’ve spoiled everything. I didn’t think I’d see anybody. Why are you not all in your rooms? Oh!—I am ready to cry with it all!”
“But we can’t think of your leaving us,” I begged, wondering what had disturbed her, but determined she should not go until we had found out. “Pierre has been at work all the morning and we——”
“No—it is I who have been working all the morning, digging in my garden, getting ready for the winter, and I am tired out, and so I will go back to my little bed in my dear garage and have my dinner alone.”
Here Herbert broke loose. “But, madame, you must dine with us; we have been counting on it.” He had set his heart on another evening with the extraordinary woman and did not mean to be disappointed.
“But, my dear Monsieur Herbert, you see, I——”
“And you really mean that you won’t stay?” groaned Louis, his face expressive of the deepest despair.
“Stop!—stop!—I tell you, and hear me through. Oh!—you dreadful men! Just see what you have done: I had such a pretty little plan of my own—I’ve been thinking of it for days. I said to myself this morning: I’ll go to the Inn after I have finished with Lemois—about six o’clock—when it is getting dark—quite too dark for a lady to be even poking about alone. They will all be out walking or dressing for dinner, and I’ll slip into the darling Marmouset, just to warm myself a little, if there should be a fire, and then they will come in and find me and be so surprised, and before any one of them can say a word I will shout out that I have come to dinner! And now you’ve ruined everything, and I must say, ‘Thank you, kind gentlemen’—like any other poor parishioner—and eat my bowl of bread and milk in the corner. Was there ever anything so banal?—Oh!—I’m heartbroken over it all. No; don’t say another word—please, papa, I’ll be a good girl. So help me off with my wraps, dear Monsieur Louis. No; wait until I get inside—you see, I’ve been gardening all day, and when one does gardening——”
The two were inside the Marmouset now, the others following, the laughter increasing as Louis led her to the hearth, where a fire had just been kindled. There he proceeded to unbutton her fur-lined motor-cloak—the laughter changing to shouts of delight when freeing herself from its folds. She stood before us a veritable Lebrun portrait, in a short black-velvet gown with wide fichu of Venetian lace rolled back from her plump shoulders, her throat circled with a string of tiny jewels from which drooped a pear-shaped pearl big as a pecan-nut and worth a king’s ransom.
“There!” she cried, her brown eyes dancing, her face aglow with her whirl through the crisp air. “Am I not too lovely, and is not my gardening costume perfect? You see, I am always careful to do my digging in black velvet and lace,” and a low gurgling sound like the cooing of doves followed by a burst of uncontrollable laughter filled the room.
If on her other visits she had captured us all by the charm of her personality, she drew the bond the tighter now. Then she had been the thorough woman of the world, adapting herself with infinite tact to new surroundings, contributing her share to the general merriment—one of us, so to speak; to-night she was the elder sister. She talked much to Herbert about his new statue and what he expected to make of it. He must not, she urged, concern himself alone with artistic values or the honors they would bring. He had gone beyond all these; his was a higher mission—one to bring the human side of the African savage to light and so help to overturn the prejudice of centuries, and nothing must swerve him from what she considered his lofty purpose—and there must be no weak repetition of his theme. Each new note he sounded must be stronger than the last.
She displayed the same fine insight when, dinner over, she talked to Louis of his out-door work—especially the whirl and slide of his water.
“You will forgive a woman, Monsieur Louis, who is old enough to be your great-grandmother, when she tells you that, fine as your pictures are—and I know of no painter of our time who paints water as well—there are some things in the out of doors which I am sure you will yet put into your canvases. I am a fisherman myself, and have thrashed many of the brooks you have painted, and there is nothing I love so much as to peer down into the holes where the little fellows live—way down among the pebbles and the brown moss and green of the water-plants. Can’t we get this—or do I expect the impossible? But if it could be done—if the bottom as well as the surface of the water could be given—would we not uncover a fresh hiding-place of nature, and would not you—you, Monsieur Louis—be doing the world that much greater service?—the pleasure being more ours than yours—your reward being the giving of that pleasure to us. I hope you will all forgive me, but it has been such an inspiration to meet you all. I get so smothered by the commonplace that sometimes I gasp for breath, and then I find some oasis like this and I open wide my soul and drink my fill.
“But enough of all this. Let us have something more amusing. Monsieur Brierley, won’t you go to the spinet and—” Here she sprang from her chair. “Oh, I forgot all about it, and I put it in my pocket on purpose. Please some one look in my cloak for a roll of music; none of you I know have heard it before. It is an old song of Provence that will revive for you all your memories of the place. Thank you, Monsieur Brierley, and now lift the lid and I will sing it for you.” And then there poured from her lips a voice so full and rich, with notes so liquid and sympathetic, that we stood around her in wonder doubting our ears.
Never had we found her so charming nor so bewitching, nor so full of enchanting surprises.
So uncontrollable were her spirits, always rising to higher flights, that I began at last to suspect that something outside of the inspiration of our ready response to her every play of fancy and wit was accountable for her bewildering mood.
The solution came when the coffee was served and fresh candles lighted and Leà and Mignon, with a curtsy to the table and a gentle, furtive good-night to madame, had left the room. Then, quite as if their departure had started another train of thought, she turned and faced our landlord.
“What a dear old woman is Leà, Lemois,” she began in casual tones, “and what good care she takes of that pretty child; she is mother and sister and guardian to her. But she cannot be everything. There is always some other yearning in a young girl’s heart which no woman can satisfy. You know that as well as I do. And this is why you are going to give Mignon to young Gaston. Is it not true?” she added in dissembling tones.
Lemois moved uneasily in his chair. The question had come so unexpectedly, and was so direct, that for a moment he lost his poise. His own attitude, he supposed, had been made quite clear the night of the rescue, when he had denounced Gaston and forbidden Mignon to see him. Yet his manner was grave enough as he answered:
“Madame has so many things to occupy her mind, and so many people to help, why should she trouble herself with those of my maid? Mignon is very happy here, and has everything she wants, and she will continue to have them as long as she is alive.”
“Then I see it is not true, and that you intend breaking her heart; and now will you please tell us why?” She looked at him and waited. There was a new ring—one of command—in her voice. I understood now as I listened why it took so short a time for her to rebuild the villa.
“Is madame the girl’s guardian that she wishes to know?” asked Lemois. The words came with infinite courtesy, madame being the only woman of whom he stood in awe, but there was an undertone of opposition which, if aggravated, would, I felt sure, end in the old man’s abrupt departure from the room.
I tried to relieve the situation by saying how happy not only Mignon but any one of us would be with so brilliant an advocate as madame pleading for our happiness, but she waved me aside with:
“No—please don’t. I want dear Lemois to answer. It was one of my reasons for coming to-night, and he must tell me. He is so kind and considerate, and he is always so sorry for anything that suffers. He loves flowers and birds and animals, and music and pictures and all beautiful things, and yet he is worse than one of the cannibals that Monsieur Herbert tells us about. They eat their young girls and have done with them—Lemois kills his by slow torture—and so I ask you again, dear Lemois—why?”
Everybody sat up straight. How would Lemois take it? His fingers began to work, and the corners of his mouth straightened. A sudden flush crossed his habitually pale face. We were sure now of an outbreak: what would happen then none of us dared think.
“Madame la marquise,” he began slowly—too slowly for anything but ill-suppressed feeling—“there is no one that I know for whom I have a higher respect; you must yourself have seen that in the many years I have known you. You are a very good and a very noble woman; all your life people have loved you—they still love you. It is one of your many gifts—one you should be thankful for. Some of us do not win this affection. You are, if you will permit me to say it, never lonely nor alone, except by your own choosing. Some of us cannot claim that—I for one. Do you not now understand?” He was still boiling inside, but the patience of the trained landlord and the innate breeding of the man had triumphed. And then, again, it would be a rash Frenchman of his class who would defy a woman of her exalted rank.
Over her face crept a pleased look—as if she held some trump card up her sleeve—and one of her cooing, bubbling laughs escaped her lips.
“You are not telling me the truth, you dear Lemois. I am not in love with Gaston, the fisherman, nor are you with our pretty Mignon. Neither you nor I have anything to do with it. Here are two young people whose happiness is trembling in the balance. You hold the scales—that is, you claim to, although the girl is neither your child nor your ward and could marry without your consent, and would if she did not love you for yourself and for all you have done for her. Answer me now—do you object because Gaston is a fisherman?”
Whether her knowledge of Lemois’ legal rights—and she had stated them correctly—softened him, or whether he saw a loophole for himself, was not apparent, but the answer came with a certain surrender.
“Yes. It is a dangerous life. You have only to live here, as I have done, to count the women who bid their men good-by and watch in the gray dawn for the boat that never comes back—Mignon’s elder brothers in one of them. I do not want her to go through that agony—she is young yet—some one else will come. The first love is not always the last—except in the case of madame”—and he smiled in strange fashion. The bomb was still within reach of his hand, but the fuse had gone out.
“Then it isn’t Gaston himself?” she demanded with unflinching gaze.
“No—he is an honest lad; good to his mother; industrious—a brave fellow. He has, too, so I hear, a place in the market—one of the stalls—so he is getting on, and will soon be one of our best citizens.” He would talk all night about Gaston, and pleasantly, if she wished.
“Well, if he were a notary? Would that be different?” Her soft brown eyes were hardly visible between their lids, but they were burning with an intense light.
“Yes, it might be.” Same air of nonchalance—anything to please the delightful woman.
“Or a chemist?”—just a slit between the lids now, with little flashes along the edges.
“Or a chemist,” intoned Lemois.
“Or a head gardener, perhaps?” Both eyes tight shut under the fluffy gray hair, an intense expression on her face.
“Why not say a minister of state, madame?” laughed Lemois.
“No—no—don’t you dare run away like that. Stand to your guns, monsieur. If he were a head gardener, then what?”
Lemois rose from his chair, laid his hand on his shirt-front, and bowed impressively. He was evidently determined to humor her passing whim.
“If he were a head gardener I would not have the slightest objection, madame.”
She sprang to her feet and began clapping her plump hands, her laughter filling the room.
“Oh!—I am so happy! You heard what he said—all of you. You, Monsieur Herbert—and you—and you”—pointing to each member of our group. “If he were a head gardener! Oh, was there ever such luck! And do you listen too, you magnificent Lemois! Gaston is a head gardener; has been a head gardener for days; every one of the plants you bought for me to-day he will put into the ground with his own hands. His mother will have the stall I bought in the fish market, and he and Mignon are to live in the new garage, and he is to have charge of the villa grounds, and she is to manage the dairy and the linen and look after the chickens and the ducks. And the wedding is to take place just as soon as you give your consent; and if you don’t consent, it will take place anyway, for I am to be godmother and she is to have a dot and all the furniture they want out of what was saved from my house, and that’s all there is to it—except that both of them know all about it, for I sent Gaston down here last night with a note for you, and he told Mignon, and it’s all settled—now what do you say?”
A shout greeted her last words, and the whole room broke spontaneously into a clapping of hands, Louis, as was his invariable custom whenever excuse offered, on his feet, glass in hand, proposing the health of that most adorable of all women of her own or any other time, past, present, or future—at which the dear, penguin-shaped lady in black velvet and lace raised her dainty white palms in holy horror, protesting that it was Monsieur Lemois whose health must be drunk, as without him nothing could have been done, the clear tones of her voice rising like a bird’s song above the others as she sprang forward, grasped Lemois’ hand and lifted him to his feet, the whole room once more applauding.
Yes, it was a great moment! Mignon’s happiness was very dear to us, but that which captured us completely was the daring and cleverness of the little woman who had worked for it, and who was so joyous over her success and so childishly enthusiastic at the outcome.
Lemois, unable to stem the flood of rejoicing, seemed to have surrendered and given up the fight, complimenting the marquise upon her diplomacy, and the way in which she had entirely outgeneralled an old fellow who was not up to the wiles of the world. “Such a mean advantage, madame, to take of a poor old man,” he continued, bowing low, a curious, unreadable expression crossing his face. “I am, as you know, but clay in your hands, as are all the others who are honored by your acquaintance. But now that I am tied to your chariot wheels, I must of course take part in your triumphal procession; so permit me to make a few suggestions.”
The marquise laughed gently, but with a puzzled look in her eyes. She was not sure what he was driving at, but she did not interrupt him.
“We will have an old-time wedding,” he continued gayly, with a comprehensive wave of his hand as if he were arranging the stage setting—“something quite in keeping with the general sentiment; for certain it is that not since the days when fair ladies let themselves down from castle walls into the arms of their plumed knights, only to dash away into space on milk-white steeds, will there be anything quite so romantic as this child-wedding!”
“And so you mean to have a rope ladder, do you, and let my——”
“Oh, no, madame la marquise,” he interrupted—“nothing so ordinary! We”—here he began rubbing his hands together quite as if he was ordering a dinner for an epicure—“we will have a revival of all the old customs just as they were in this very place. Our bride will join her lord in a cabriolet, and our groom will come on horseback—all fishermen ride, you know—and so will the other fishermen and maids—each gallant with a fair lady seated behind him on the crupper, her arms about his waist. Then we will have trumpeters and a garter man——”
“A what!” She was still at sea as to his meaning, although she had not missed the tone of irony in his voice.
“A man, madame, whose duty is to secure one of the bride’s garters. Oh, you need not start—that is quite simply arranged. The old-time brides always carried an extra pair to save themselves embarrassment. The one for the garter-man will be trimmed with ribbons which he will cut off and distribute to the other would-be brides, who will keep them in their prayer-books.”
“Leà, for instance,” chimed in Louis, winking at Herbert.
“Leà, for instance, my dear Monsieur Louis. I know of no better mate for a man—and it is a pity you are too young.”
The laugh was on Louis this time, but the old man kept straight on, his subtle irony growing more pointed as he continued: “And then, madame, when it is all over and the couple retire for the night—and of course we will give them the best room in our house, they being most distinguished personages—none other than Monsieur Gaston Duprè, Lord of the Lobster Pot, Duke of Buezval, and Grand Marshal of the Deep Sea, and Mademoiselle Mignon, Princess of——”
The marquise drew herself up to her full height. “Stop your nonsense, Lemois. I won’t let you say another word; you shan’t ridicule my young people. Stop it, I say!”
“Oh, but wait, madame—please hear me out—I have not finished. These pewter dishes must also come into service”—and he caught up the two bowls from the tops of the great andirons behind him—“these we will fill with spices steeped in mulled wine, which, as I tried to say, we will send to their Royal Highnesses’ bedroom—after they are tucked away in——”
“No!—no!—we will do nothing of the kind; everything shall be just the other way. There will be no horses, no cabriolet, no trumpeters, no garters except the ones the dear child will wear, and no mulled wine. We will all go on foot, and the only music will be the organ in the old church, and the breakfast will be here, in our beloved Marmouset, and the punch will be mixed by Monsieur Brierley in the Ming bowl I brought, and Monsieur Louis will serve it, and then they will both go to their own home and sleep in their own bed. So there! Not another word, for it is all settled and finished”—and one of her rippling, joyous laughs—a whole dove-cote mingled with any number of silver bells—quivered through the room.
Lemois joined in the merriment, shrugging his inscrutable shoulders, repeating that he, of course, was only a captive, and must therefore do as he was bid, a situation which, he added with another low bow, had its good side since so charming a woman as madame held his chain.
And yet despite his gayety there was under it all a certain reserve which, although lost on the others, convinced me that the old man had not, by any means, made up his mind as to what he would do. While Mignon was not his legal ward, his care of her all these years must count for something. Madame, of course, was a difficult person to make war upon once she had set her heart on a thing—and she certainly had on this marriage, amazing as it was to him—and yet there was still the girl’s future to be considered, and with it his own. All this was in his eyes as I watched him resuming his place by the fire after some of the excitement had begun to quiet down.
But none of this—even if she, too, had studied him as I had—would have made any impression on Mignon’s champion. She was accustomed to being obeyed—the gang of mechanics who had under her directions performed two days’ work in one had found that out. And then, again, her whole purpose in life was to befriend especially those girls who, having no one to stand by them, become broken down by opposition and so marry where their hearts seldom lead. How many had she taken under her wing—how many more would she protect as long as she lived!
Before she bade us good-night all the wedding details were sketched out, our landlord listening and nodding his head whenever appeal was made to him, but committing himself by no further speech. The ceremony, she declared gayly—and it must be the most beautiful and brilliant of ceremonies—would take place in the old twelfth-century church, at the end of the street, from which the great knights of old had sallied forth and where a new knight, one Monsieur Gaston, would follow in their footsteps—not for war, but for love—a much better career—this, with an additional toss of her head at the silent Lemois. There would be flowers and perhaps music—she would see about that—but no trumpeters—and again she looked at Lemois—and everybody from Buezval would be invited—all the fishermen, of course, and their white-capped mothers and sisters and aunts, and cousins for that matter—everybody who would come; and Pierre and her own chef from Rouen would prepare the wedding breakfast if dear Lemois would consent—and if he didn’t consent, it would be cooked anyhow, and brought in ready to be eaten—and in this very room with every one of us present.
“And now, Monsieur Louis, please get me my cloak, and will one of you be good enough to tell my chauffeur I am ready?—and one thing more, and this I insist on: please don’t any of you move—and, whatever you do, don’t bid me good-by. I want to carry away with me just the picture I am looking at: Monsieur Herbert there in his chair between the two live heads—yes, I believe it now—and Messieurs Louis and Brierley and Le Blanc, and our delightful host, and dear tantalizing Lemois, by the hearth—and the queer figures looking down at us through the smoke of our cigarettes—and the glow of the candles, and the light of the lovely fire to which you have welcomed me. Au revoir, messieurs—you have made me over new and I am very happy, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart!”
And she was gone.
When the door was shut behind her, Herbert strolled to the fire and stood with his face to the flickering blaze. We all remained standing, paying unconscious homage to her memory. For some seconds no one spoke. Then, turning and facing the group, Herbert said, half aloud, as if communing with himself:
“A real woman—human and big, half a dozen such would revolutionize France. And she knows—that is the best part of it”—and his voice grew stronger—“she knows! You may think you’ve reached the bottom of things—thought them all out, convinced you are right, even steer your course by your deductions—and here comes along a woman who lifts a lid uncovering a well in your soul you never dreamed of, and your conclusions go sky-high. And she does it so cleverly, and she is so sane about it all. If she were where I could get at her now and then I’d do something worth while. I’ve made up my mind to one thing, anyhow—I’m going to pull to pieces the thing I set up before I came down here and start something new. I’ve got another idea in my head—something a little more human.”
“Isn’t ‘The Savage’ human, Herbert?” I asked, filling his glass as I spoke, to give him time for reply.
“No; it’s only African—one phase of a race.”
“How about your ‘group,’ ‘They Have Eyes and They See Not’?” asked Brierley, who had drawn up a chair and stood leaning over its back, gazing into the fire.
“A little better, but not much. The Great Art is along other lines—bigger, higher, stronger—more universal lines, one that has nothing racial about it, one that expresses the human heart no matter what the period or nationality. The ‘Prodigal Son’ is a drama which has been understood and is still understood by the whole earth irrespective of creed or locality. It appeals to the savage and the savant alike and always will to the end of time. So with the Milo. She is Greek, English, or Slav at your option, but she will live forever because she expresses the divine essence of maternity which is eternal. It is this, and only this, which compels. I have had glimmerings of it all my life. Madame cleared out the cobwebs for me in a flash. A great woman—real human.”
Then noticing that no one had either interrupted his outburst or moved his position, he glanced around the group and, as if in doubt as to the way his outburst had been received, said simply:
“Well, speak up; am I right or wrong? You don’t seem to see it as I do. How did she appeal to you, Brierley?”
The young fellow stepped in front of his chair and dropped into its depths.
“You are dead right, Herbert; you are, anyhow, about the Milo. I never go into her presence without lifting my hat, and I have kept it up for years. But you don’t do yourself justice, old man. Some of your things will live as long as they hold together. However”—and he laughed knowingly—“that’s for posterity to settle. How does madame appeal to me? you ask. Well, being a many-sided woman—no frills, no coquetry, nor sham—she appeals to me more as a comrade than in any other way—just plain comrade. Half the women one meets of her age and class have something of themselves to conceal, giving you a side which they are not, or trying to give it for you to read at first sight. She gave us her worst side first—or what we thought was her worst side—and her best last.”
“And you, Le Blanc?” resumed Herbert. “She’s your countrywoman; let’s have it.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Herbert. I, of course, have heard of her for years, and she was therefore not so much of a surprise to me as she was to you all. If, however, you want me to get down to something fundamental, I’ll tell you that she confirms a theory I have always had that— But I won’t go into that. It’s our last night together and we——”
“No; go on. This interests me enormously, especially her personality. We’ll have our nightcap later on.”
“Well, all right,” and he squared himself toward Herbert. “She confirms, as I said, a theory of mine—one I have always had, that the Great Art—that for which the world is waiting—is not so much the creation of statues, if you will pardon me, as the creation of a better understanding of women by men. Not of their personalities, but of their impersonalities. Most women are afraid to let themselves go, not knowing how we will take them, and because of this fear we lose the best part of a woman’s nature. She dares not do a great many generous things—sane, kindly, human things—because she is in dread of being misunderstood. She is even afraid to love some of us as intensely as she would. Madame dares everything and could never be misunderstood. All doubts of her were swept out in her opening sentence the night she arrived. She ought to found a school and teach women to be themselves, then we’d all be that much happier.”
“And now, Louis,” persisted Herbert, “come, we’re waiting. No shirking, and no nonsense. Just the plain truth. How does she appeal to you?”
“As a dead game sport, Herbert, and the best ever! Every man on his feet and I’ll give you a toast that is as short and sweet as her adorable self.
“Here’s to our friend, Madame la Marquise de la Caux—THE WOMAN.”